It was late last Friday night, after Game 3 of the American
League Championship Series, and Bernie Williams had finished his
daily workout: He followed a game-breaking hit with 15 minutes
of abdominal exercises, diligently done on the clubhouse floor
while many of his New York Yankees teammates scarfed down beer
and small mountains of spaghetti and meatballs. After Williams's
work was done this night--in the eighth inning against the
Baltimore Orioles, he had driven in the tying run and daringly
scored the go-ahead run in what turned out to be the pivotal
frame of the series--he tried to describe what it is like to
play at such a heightened level in such a showcase. With his
usual eloquence, he talked about an awareness of surroundings
"on the field level only. You don't even see the fans." It is,
Williams decided, as riveting as the moments before childbirth.
"It's like the father waiting for his wife to deliver," said
Williams, who has three children. "You are hoping all goes well.
You get to a point that you are so focused, nothing else matters."
Expectant? The Yankees can relate. Since signing Williams on his
17th birthday, 11 years ago, New York has waited anxiously for
his arrival as an elite player. He had been known for being too
soft and for playing his ubiquitous Fender Stratocaster guitar
better than centerfield. As recently as last season Williams
remained so unpolished that Gene Michael, the Yankees' general
manager at the time, feared that owner George Steinbrenner would
ship him to the San Francisco Giants, who were offering the
undistinguished Darren Lewis in return. Just a few weeks ago New
York manager Joe Torre had to scold Williams for what he
politely called Williams's "bad body language" during a
The wait is over. So dazzling was Williams in lifting the
Yankees past the Orioles in five games and into the World Series
that you can consider the Championship Series to have been his
birth announcement. A star is born. "No one should have to use
the word potential again with Bernie," said Baltimore hitting
coach Rick Down, who spent the previous three seasons in the
same role with New York, before Game 4. "He's done it. He used
to let his first two at bats affect his last two at bats. Not
anymore. He's in control. Nothing flusters him now. He used to
get off to slow starts, have bad Aprils or whatever. Now I think
you'll see a consistent player in control from Day One of the
Said Orioles manager Davey Johnson after the series, "I don't
know how you can get him out." Neither did the Baltimore
pitchers. They didn't retire Williams in more than two
consecutive plate appearances. He batted .474, slugged .947 and,
after being put out his first two at bats in the series, reached
base 14 times in 22 plate appearances. Including the Division
Series against the Texas Rangers this year and the Seattle
Mariners last season, Williams has hit .455 with seven home runs
and 16 RBIs in his 14 postseason games. "It's an exciting time,"
he said after Game 4. "The intensity and focus I've had is
incredible. There's time for nothing but thinking baseball all
day. Well, that and the guitar."
October 20, 1996
Having a red-hot switch-hitter in the middle of its lineup makes
New York a formidable opponent for either the St. Louis
Cardinals or the Atlanta Braves in the World Series. What's
more, the Yankees have home field advantage, a suffocating
bullpen and a knack for clutch hitting, all of which give them
an edge in close games. "We feel like the only way we can lose
is if our starting pitching gets blown out," says first baseman
Tino Martinez. "And with our pitching staff, that rarely happens."
Baltimore may have been the greatest home run hitting club in
history during the regular season, but it had precious few other
ways to get runners home against New York. It advanced an extra
base on a hit only four times in the series and did not steal a
base. Only once did the Orioles knock in a run with a hit other
than a home run, of which they had nine. Against the Yankees,
who allowed fewer homers than any other team in the American
League during the season, they were 4-14 overall this year, 0-9
at home and 0-13 when New York started a lefthander. "We were
kind of one-dimensional," Johnson said after Baltimore was
eliminated 6-4 on Sunday. "If a guy makes a mistake, we'll whack
it. But when you face good pitching, there aren't many mistakes.
And if there are mistakes, they're usually not made with people
In the series against the Yankees, the third through sixth
hitters in the Orioles' lineup--Roberto Alomar, Rafael Palmeiro,
Bobby Bonilla and Cal Ripken--batted .188 in 80 at bats with
seven RBIs, or one more than Williams had. Bonilla was 0 for 19
before hitting a home run in the last inning of the last game
with Baltimore down by four runs.
While New York had the current and past Mr. Octobers in its
dugout (Williams and Yankees special adviser Reggie Jackson, who
made sure to be in camera range in the final innings of the
clincher), the Orioles had an overmatched Bonilla. He's a .190
hitter in the 22 postseason games he has played, and in Game 2
against the Yankees he joined John Kruk as the only players to
whiff four times in a nine-inning League Championship Series game.
Baltimore carried a lead into the eighth inning in each of the
first three games and lost two of them. It was ahead 4-3 in the
eighth of the opener when New York's 22-year-old rookie
shortstop, Derek Jeter, lofted a fly ball that sent rightfielder
Tony Tarasco, not to mention Jeff Maier, to the wall. Jeff, 12,
from Old Tappan, N.J., is symbolic of the kind of audience
baseball is trying to recapture. The game, after all, began at
the kid-friendly time of 4:08 p.m. While baseball was reaching
out to youngsters like Jeff, he returned the favor. Just as
Tarasco camped under the fly, Jeff, seated in the first row of
Section 31 at Yankee Stadium, stuck his glove over the wall and
into fair territory, hoping to grab a souvenir. The ball bounced
off his mitt and into the stands. "It was a pretty high hit," he
said. "I'm not used to seeing a ball hit that high in Little
Rightfield umpire Rich Garcia somehow did not see Jeff interfere
with the ball, which, given the likelihood that Tarasco would
have caught it, should have been ruled an out. Instead Garcia
called it a home run. "His mistake was watching the outfielder
instead of the ball," Johnson said. None of the other five
umpires admitted to having seen the kid touch the ball, either.
"I saw it from the dugout," fumed Johnson. "I always say one
play doesn't beat you. But that's as close as you get." Instead
of being four outs from a win, the Orioles were tied. They were
beaten three innings later when Williams blasted a hanging
slider from Randy Myers into the leftfield stands.
After he saw replays following the game, Garcia admitted that he
blew the call. Two days later, however, embattled American
League president Gene Budig denied Baltimore's protest.
Meanwhile, the marquee outside the Old Tappan Fire Department
read: YANKEE GREATS. MANTLE. MARIS. MUNSON. MAIER.
The only person as popular as Jeff around New York was Garcia,
who received a loud ovation upon his introduction for Game 2.
Garcia obliged his fans by signing autographs between innings of
the game. "Unbelievable," said one Orioles player.
"We don't condone it," said Marty Springstead, the league's
supervisor of umpires. "We allowed him to do it in Baltimore the
next game just to kind of balance it out."
The Orioles, however, got even. They won the second game 5-3
behind lefthander David Wells, and when the series moved south
for Game 3, Mike Mussina gave Baltimore another strong start. He
had a four-hitter and a 2-1 lead with two outs and nobody on
base in the eighth inning. Just seven pitches later the Yankees
led 5-2. The Orioles would never again lead in the series.
The rally began with a double by Jeter, that other troublemaking
kid, who hit .417 in the series. Williams sent him home with a
single. Then Martinez moved Williams to third with a double.
Upon catching the throw from the outfield, Orioles third baseman
Todd Zeile bluffed a throw to second base. When Zeile tried to
stop his throwing motion, the ball flew out of his hand and onto
the infield dirt. Williams dashed home with the tie-breaking
run. Rattled by the bizarre play, Mussina hung a pitch to the
next batter, Cecil Fielder, who launched it into the leftfield
seats. "I think it was the turning point," Alomar said of the
inning. "Their inspiration went up, and our inspiration went
The Yankees buried Baltimore thereafter with seven home runs
over the final two games, including three by Darryl Strawberry.
"If I had done this 10 years ago," Strawberry said after
smashing two dingers in New York's 8-4 win in Game 4, "it would
have been wild. I would have been out drinking all night, had a
good time. Now my celebration is going home to be with my
family. I'm going to hug my kids. That's the best celebration
Strawberry, a recovering drug and alcohol abuser, reformed his
career by way of the Betty Ford Center, the Puerto Rican winter
league and the Northern League. He is just one of several
reasons that few other clubs have cherished a league
championship as much as these Yankees have. Torre, for instance,
waited 4,272 games as a player and manager to get to the World
Series, the most by anyone in history. "It has been tough
watching the Series," said Torre. "Mostly, I turned it off. It's
like watching someone else eat a hot-fudge sundae. And that's
Williams, too, is a survivor. He and catcher Jim Leyritz are the
only active Yankees who have spent more than four seasons with
New York. Says Williams, "This feels great. You've got to have a
heart of stone not to feel positive about playing this well this
time of year."
At 7:20 p.m. on Sunday the Yankees secured their first league
title in 15 years--their longest drought since winning the first
of their 34 pennants in 1921--when Jeter threw out Ripken on a
grounder. Strawberry raced from the dugout to the infield to
join the celebration. Later, he would wear, not drink, the
Torre stayed in the dugout and wept. He thought about his
family, including his older brothers, Rocco, who died of a heart
attack this summer, and Frank, who's been in a New York City
hospital since August, awaiting a heart transplant. Williams,
with "a whole mix of emotions running through my mind," began
running toward the infield. Then, suddenly, he stopped and
dropped to one knee and bowed his head in centerfield at Camden
Yards. "I gave thanks to the Lord," he said.
More than an hour later, still half in uniform, Williams
surveyed a clubhouse littered with empty champagne bottles and
beer cans and admitted there still was work to be done. The
abdominal exercises. He had not forgotten them. "I'll do them
when I get home," he said. "This is no time to be slacking off."